Unfamiliar faces pepper Irish lineup - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Unfamiliar faces pepper Irish lineup

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Cheer, cheer for young Notre Dame?

Charlie Weis entered the auditorium at the Guglielmino Athletic Complex at 11:56 a.m. Monday for Notre Dame media day looking much thinner. Maybe that's what comes with not bearing the weight of such high expectations.

Last year's Fighting Irish entered fall camp with a No. 2 national ranking and so much hype that it might as well have been Real World: South Bend. Quarterback Brady Quinn was a Heisman favorite, while wide receiver Jeff Samardzija and safety Tom Zbikowski loomed as the most hipster-cool BFFs since Bret and Jermaine -- they even both dabbled in guitar playing.

This August? The Irish return just three starters on offense and are not ranked in any preseason Top 25. Notre Dame will now wake up any echoes of the derogatory "Over-rated!" chant that were so often heard in 2006.

Just how young is this Irish team, particularly on offense? Samardzija, who graduated as the most prolific receiver (179 catches) in school history, threw as many passes (2) last autumn as the most experienced returning quarterback, junior Evan Sharpley. The entire returning offense accounted for nine touchdowns last season, whereas three different Irish players last season -- Samardzija, Rhema McKnight and Darius Walker -- each had at least eight.

How young? The most experienced returning offensive player, in terms of starts a year ago, is offensive tackle Sam Young. And he's just a sophomore.

Peruse the depth chart card that the Notre Dame sports information staff distributed Monday morning and the one word that stands out is "or." Matt Carufel is your starter at right guard ... or Dan Wenger is. Asaph Schwapp is the fullback ... or Luke Schmidt. The second-string tailback is James Aldridge ... or Amando Allen ... or Junior Jabbie.

And then there's the quarterback position. Evan Sharpley is number one ... or Demetrius Jones ... or Jimmy Clausen.

At one point during his 45-minute press conference, Weis was asked if he expected to see much battling for a starting position. "Name the position," he replied.

Despite the or-ganic nature of Notre Dame's preseason depth chart, Weis insists that this is not a rebuilding year (although it is). "Rebulding?" a jovial Weis said when the term was broached. "May God strike me dead if I ever use that term."

Brazen words for a man who works in such close proximity to Touchdown Jesus.

Charlie Weis was once a student at Notre Dame, and in his current position he is a student of Notre Dame. And so he well knows that in their third seasons as head football coach in South Bend, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won a national championship. Knute Rockne's squad finished 9-0 in his third season.

As he enters his third year coaching his alma mater, Weis appears to have the Irish headed closer to that goal. But he is not destined to enjoy the same third season success as those Irish coaching legends. As the depth chart indicates, in terms of being a national title contender this year's Irish are simply out of their depth.

Who Be The QB?

Asked if he would be opposed to playing two quarterbacks, Weis replied, "I can't rule it out completely. I've always felt that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one."

Then Weis paused a beat. "To be totally honest with you, I don't want to tell Georgia Tech what I'm doing (with regards to the quarterback situation)."

Asked, then, if there would be a gulf in time between when Weis realized who his starter would be and when the public would, Weis grinned.

"Yes."

Until Brady Quinn signs a contract with the Cleveland Browns, there remain two former Notre Dame quarterbacks playing in the NFL--and both earn a living as wide receivers. Arnaz Battle plays for the San Francisco 49ers and Carlyle Holiday catches passes from the man who should retire as the league's all-time touchdown pass leader, Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers.

Chip On Their Shoulder Pads

Weis let it be known amongst his seniors--and safety Tom Zbikowski watched it live--that ESPN's Mark May predicted that the Irish would start the season 1-7. "We had a meeting with our captains and our leadership committee," Zbikowski said, "and he pointed that out to us. It was on ESPN. Pretty sure you can figure out who that was."

Fellow returning captain Travis Thomas--and how many teams, by the way, return just one less captain than offensive starters--is not surprised. "You hear it every day," he says. "1-7 or 2-6. We're either always overrated or we get no respect."

From Blue Chip To Bone Chips?

Summer speculation centered around the right elbow of freshman blue chip quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Did Clausen in fact undergo a medical procedure on his right elbow, perhaps to clean out some bone chips? Weis would not comment, but he did assure the media that "He's out there practicing today like we said he would be."

Weis elaborated that, if Clausen had to, he could attempt thirty or forty passes in practice. He just hopes it doesn't come down to that, not in practice or in a game. "None of them will be slingin' it thirty or forty times today," Weis said.

Channel Z

Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija have moved on to their professional careers and their (as soon as Quinn autographs his contract) manifold millions. Yet Tom Zbikowski, the third piece of last season's Holy Trinity, is back in South Bend for a fifth season.

"And it's not because he loves going to class so much," says Weis.

Zbikowski bluntly admits that he had a disappointing 2006. He finished with zero interceptions (after grabbing five in 2005) and just one punt return for a touchdown, a 52-yarder against North Carolina. Zibby was speared while returning a punt against Purdue in the season's fifth game, and after that, he says, "I wasn't myself."

Zbikowski sat out the next week's win against Stanford, but did not play with the reckless abandon that defined his first two years in the Notre Dame secondary. "If I took a wrong shot, I couldn't feel anything on the left side of my body," he says.

"Tommy came back because he had something to prove," says secondary coach Bill Lewis. "I don't think Tommy wanted to go out the way that he did. He's lost twelve to fifteen pounds and he's a lot quicker."

Zbikowski says that he made the decision to return for a fifth season before last January's Sugar Bowl. As for whether he'll also revive his Z-Hawk haircut that he began last season with, Zibby is cryptic. "I've got some different stuff in mind," he says, "but I'm not gonna tell you guys that."

Chin Up, Chinedum

Zbikowski is likely heartened by the news that his fellow safety starter from last year, Chinedum Ndukwe, is tearing it up in training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals. Ndukwe, best known before this season as Brady Quinn's close friend and roommate, was selected in the 7th round (253rd overall) by the Bengals.

Bengal coach Marvin Lewis, asked earlier today if he cared to "mention anyone who has made positive improvements", singled out Leon Hall (the team's firs-round pick) and Ndukwe.

Last week Lewis said of Ndukwe, "Every time we do something, you see Chinedum. He just keeps on impressing."

A Back Who Is Back In The Backfield

Two years ago Travis Thomas was a backup running back. Last year he started at linebacker and saw spot duty behind Darius Walker at tailback (13 carries, 78 yards, two TDs). This season Thomas returns to the offense exclusively.

"It was a lot last year," admits Thomas, who should eclipse his 2006 season rushing total in Notre Dame's opener. "I was just trying to remember the defensive packages from week to week, plus the offense. And I was on special teams."

Asked if he sometimes felt that he deserved three scholarships, Thomas laughed. "Yeah," he says. "I was like three people on the field."

Thomas sat down with Charlie Weis before the Sugar Bowl last December and told him that he wanted to return to offense. Weis agreed that he belonged there. When Darius Walker befuddlingly turned pro before his senior year, Thomas emerged as the leading candidate in the backfield.

Unlike last season, though, when Walker had more than two-thirds of Notre Dame's carries (excluding Brady Quinn's keepers), this year's tailback position will be more democratic.

"Actually, I think I got five guys competing (for carries)," says Weis, referring to Thomas, sophomore James Aldridge, senior Junior Jabbie (who had the most rushing yards in the spring game) and freshmen Robert Hughes and Armando Allen.

Of that quintet Weis singled out the 5'11 Allen, who missed his senior year of high school due to injury, without mentioning him by name. "We have a breakaway threat," Weis said, "and we all know who I'm talking about here."

Weis dismissed the myth of the 4.3 forty time while he was at it. "You know those fictitious 4.3's? In the league I used to coach in, there were only a handful of guys who can run under 4.5. If you can run below a 4.5, believe me, that's pretty fast."

"How Do You Measure Yourself Against Other Golfers?"

"By Height."

Jeff Samardizja and Maurice Stovall, who stand 6'5" and 6'4", respectively, were the starting wideouts in Weis' first season in South Bend. As camp opens today, the projected starters at wide receiver are David Grimes (5'10") and George West (5'8").

Rebuilding? No. Construction? Yes

Weis may insist that his squad is not rebuilding, but his campus is. Temporary chain link fences enshroud the southwest corner of the Joyce Athletic & Convocation Center, which will be going a massive renovation and expansion in the coming year.

Moreover, inveterate Irish fans and alums will notice that BQQB and the Shark are not all that have vanished from campus this autumn. So has Juniper Road. The thoroughfare that once wound between the JACC and Notre Dame Stadium no longer exists. It has been supplanted by, of all things, planters. Those and pedestrian walkways, which will guantee that all traffic between the two structures from now on is pedestrian.

The T-Shirt

This year's Notre Dame T-shirt that all the students in the northwest corner of the stadium will be wearing is dark green. It sells for $15 and the saying on the front is "Together As One."

McLovin

Derrell Hand, the backup defensive end who was suspended for "a violation of team rules," was not mentioned at all during Weis' press conference. Hand was reportedly arrested for allegedly soliciting an undercover South Bend police officer for prostitution. The incident took place outside a fast-food restaurant in South Bend.

No word yet on whether or when Hand will return to practice. Or on where South Bend P.D. is finding such alluring law enforcement types.


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